LEBANON, Ohio -- A popular passenger-only tourist excursion train in the City of Lebanon should do more to partner with downtown businesses to continue operating on the city-owned rail line, a long-awaited study released Thursday recommended.
Study architects, who surveyed 470 riders on the Lebanon Mason Monroe (LM&M) Railroad attraction over four months and conducted an economic analysis of the scenic train’s impact on the city, said the company has received positive customer feedback, but the relationship between the city and rail company isn’t meeting its potential.
“In Lebanon, too many customers of the railroad manage to miss the downtown on the first visit, but still plan to return,” wrote architects from Stone Consulting, Inc. in the study’s executive summary.
At issue is whether the city should continue to indirectly support the private company with taxpayer dollars by spending $200,000 each year to maintain the city’s rail line. The line consists of five miles of track and five bridges.
The rail company is the sole operator on the city’s line, and the track currently cannot support sustained freight, according to 2011 rail bridge load rating report.
"It's not common for a small community to own and operate a rail line," said Lebanon City Manager Pat Clements. "We have a business model where the full cost of the line has to be made up with only the value we're generating with the tourist operation because [the track] is not being shared."
But the study results discuss the benefit of sharing the track by adding freight to the city's rail line. The recommendations, which city council members will review in a special meeting next week, include:
- Finding a way to improve infrastructure on the rail line so it can support the movement of freight.
- Developing freight traffic on the city-owned rail line so the track will be more attractive to operators and will remove problems of both city ownership and ongoing subsidization of the line.
- Implementing on-board promotion and advertising of Lebanon businesses this year, such as placards and brochures.
- Forming a joint committee between the railroad and the city to investigate regional excursion operations that successfully implement federally required accessibility for the disabled.
- Offering a feedback mechanism via a discount coupon or offer code on-board the train for businesses to recognize train customers in their stores so the businesses can track the economic impact of the train.
- Asking downtown businesses to include railroad promotional brochures to their customers at the checkout counter to increase LM&M’s ridership.
- Discussing the practicality of LM&M taking on an increased role in track maintenance in exchange for reduced payment.
Supporters of the city’s contract with LM&M, which expires on Dec. 31, say the annual 40,000 train passengers bring in essential revenue that keeps some local businesses alive.
“There are people on council who feel as if we are writing a check to a business privately, and that’s not the case because we own that land. We have a responsibility to maintain that land whether it’s active or not,” said Matthew Rodriguez, a Lebanon City Council member who wants to keep the contract with the company.
Opponents say track maintenance cost more than the railroad company brings in, and the thousands of dollars spent to maintain the tracks should instead be spent on the city’s other needs.
“It’s a quarter of a million dollars that we have taken from taxpayers to subsidize one private company, and I’m not sure that’s the role of government,” said Wendy Monroe, a Lebanon city council member who opposes the city’s contract with the railroad company.
It's a conversation that's divided city council members for years, but this is the first year officials will have access to the data about the train's local impact to help make their decision.
In a 4-2 vote in June 2013, city council officials first approved the $40,100 contract with Stone Consulting, Inc. to conduct the independent analysis of the costs and benefits of continuing to maintain the rail line to facilitate the tourist excursion train.
The train, which came to Lebanon in the early 2000's, operates on 16 miles of track between Lebanon, Mason and Monroe. Most of its scenic trips, however, run just 4.4 miles south of Lebanon to a picnic grove along the track at the back of the Southwest Golf Ranch. It's best known for attracting Tri-State residents to its seasonal train rides like the Easter Bunny Express, the North Pole Express, the Pumpkin Patch Express and Thomas the Tank Engine.
“I have met people who have bought houses as a result of coming to the community from the train, they have decided to move here because of its intrinsic nature. I know people who have bought businesses here and who live on the fact that we have trains here,” Rodriguez said.
Surveys issued to the more than 400 passengers who had board the train asked questions like why they used the train, where they're staying, what they did while they're in town and if they were likely to come back.
Bill Kilimnik, general manager at the historical Golden Lamb hotel and restaurant in the heart of the city's bucolic downtown, said he meets many train customers who stay at his hotel -- and some who come just for the train.
"There's more than just a sales impact of this train. There are people who get shifts scheduled. There are indirect jobs impacts. When the train runs on the weekends, it impacts us. We staff accordingly," he said.
Carolyn Abbott, general manager of LM&M, told WCPO in February the railroad company was pleased with the city's decision to conduct the study, and she said the company has worked closely with the consultants to provide financial information about their business.
"Our goal is to stay here in Lebanon," said Abbott. "It's a concern. Part of the draw [with the train] we have found with people is to come visit the community and to come to this area."
But Abbott said the company will still be able to function from another location, and she said they've already considered Mason as their next option.
Some local business owners are anxious, as they await a decision from city council.
Susie Alexander, owner of the Village Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant in downtown Lebanon, said the train brings in 25 to 35 percent of sales at her family owned business.
"Maybe the passengers won't come that day, but the railroad brings them in and they keep coming back. People don't just ride the train once. They ride it two or three times a year. We shudder to think about what it's loss could do to our business," she said.
The study indicated, however, that about 50 percent of riders don't visit downtown businesses when they come to ride the train.
Kilimnik said the Golden Lamb, although a destination-driven property, would take a hit, too.
"It would have a significant impact on our business should it stop running," he said.
Rodriguez is convinced that some local business would actually be forced to close if they no longer get their customers from the train, but Monroe doesn't think that would happen.
"I'm just not convinced that it's having that much of an impact on our local economy," she said to WCPO in February.
Once council members decide whether to continue their lease agreement with LM&M, they will decide what to do with the tracks.
Council members like Rodriguez want to expand train service on the city's tracks.
"I have a problem with the fact that we're only using that train as a tourist attraction when, in fact, it could be utilized as an inter mobile," he said. "We're not using it to its full potential."
Other council members have plans to abandon the tracks and spend the money elsewhere.